P. Jayarajan slowly raised his left hand and pointed to a gap where a thumb had been hacked off before flagging a deep scar on his other arm — proud war wounds from a past Indian political campaign.
“They tried to kill me in front of my wife and family but I survived,” said the soft-spoken communist, a symbol of Kerala's status as a hotbed of political violence in India, where violence between rival parties is common.
“I lost the thumb and my arm was cut too. It was fixed but there is no feeling,” the 67-year-old electoral candidate told AFP during a break from campaigning in India's marathon election.
The southern state of 35 million people votes in the latest round on Tuesday.
But Jayarajan is not just a victim of what Caravan magazine has called “the killing fields of Kerala”, where dozens have died in political battles in the past two decades.
Attacked two decades back, Jayarajan has since been accused by rival parties of instigating similar attacks. He denies the charges.
But Jayarajan's candidacy in the Vadakara constituency, in the north of the state, has put a national spotlight on another bloody campaign in Kerala.
In February, just before the six-week long election was announced, two activists for the opposition Congress party were killed.
Workers from Congress and the rival Left Democratic Front alliance — led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which rules the state — have fought fierce clashes.
The left-wing parties have also fought activists from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist ideological parent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, according to political writer Ullekh N.P.
Fighting has intensified since the RSS and BJP started trying to make inroads in Kerala, said Ullekh, who wrote “Kannur: Inside India's Bloodiest Revenge Politics” about a district near Vadakara.
Ullekh said the bloodshed was “a big blot” for Kerala.
According to Ullekh, the violence was first started by the Congress party, which has dominated India's politics since independence in 1947.
“Congress did to other protest movements and rivals what the colonial British did to them before independence. The Communists became militant in response,” he added.
“This has now become an issue of political one-upmanship between rival ideologies.”
Villages have now become fervent loyalists of one party, and tensions and fights flare between villages that support rivals in an endless cycle of death and destruction. Each side keeps a tally of its wins and defeats, and villages have memorials to party workers who died for the cause.
“Ninety-three of our workers have been martyred in my district,” A.N. Shamseer, a communist state lawmaker for Thalassery, told AFP.
The local RSS unit keeps its own tally of its activists lost in battle on an office wall.
Praveen KK, a carpenter, has been an RSS activist in Thalassery for years.
He suffered life-changing injuries after being cornered on his motorbike in a “Communist village”.
“I tried to escape but fell. Eight men attacked me with knives and cleavers. The first blows were to my head. My helmet split,” he told AFP.
“They then went for my leg,” added Praveen, who now walks with a limp, as he showed the scarred skin.
“The attack was relentless and no one from the village came to help. Some passers-by on the road took me to a nearby hospital. I spent eight months in bed.”
Many locals put him in the “living martyr” category used for those who get away with scars, injuries or perhaps an amputation.
B.N. Leela was 19 when her husband became one of the first RSS workers in the state killed in inter-party violence in 1969.
“I feel sad and helpless for others who suffer now,” she said, looking at a black and white photograph of her dead husband.
“I am not sure what can happen to change this,” added Leela, who has never remarried.
Now one of the most senior RSS leaders in the region, C. Chandrashekar joined the RSS in 1942 and has seen many elections and endless ideological wars.
“The attacks still involve the same weapons — the knives and cleavers. But now, over the last three decades, there are bombs too,” he said.
“The only way it could change is if the police and administration become impartial. Until then there is no hope.”
Header image: A worker dusts memorial portraits of party workers killed in political violence hanging at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) office at Thalaserry in the southern Indian state of Kerala. — AFP